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More homeless families turn to Room in the Inn this year

Charlotte faces the prospect of more homeless families on the streets this week as the community’s winter shelter program ends for the season on Sunday.

The Room in the Inn initiative, managed by the Urban Ministry Center, served 78 families with 131 children this winter, nearly twice the number of families served last winter.

In many cases, the parents either didn’t qualify for other shelters because they weren’t county residents, or they refused to be split up between Charlotte’s men’s and women’s shelters.

The increase comes not long after a national survey reported homeless families in Charlotte rose by 23 percent in 2012, the third year in a row the community saw a double-digit increase in that category.

Once Room in the Inn shuts down, homeless families have only two options: The Men’s Shelter of Charlotte and the Salvation Army Center of Hope for women and children. However, the latter remains over capacity, with some families sleeping on the floors.

Among the people in the program this month was an out-of-work tower crane operator and his wife of six years, who have two sons, ages 11 months and 3 years old.

The couple worry their children might be taken from them, so they declined to give their names. Their youngest is sick a lot, they say.

“We come here (to Room in the Inn) at night and spend days in our car, an ’89 Buick Century. But it’s tough to get gas money,” said the father, as he fed his toddler in the Urban Ministry lobby. “I had the rug pulled out from under me with this economy. I had a great life but I didn’t save any money. I’ve been looking for work and may have a job come Monday.”

The couple is hoping they can get into a Salvation Army program that helps homeless families who have a job but little else. But like many charity housing programs, there is a long waiting list and a shortage of money.

Room in the Inn responded to the increased number of families by adding more part-time social workers to help parents find work and explore options for housing, including moving in with relatives.

“They did not become homeless quickly and getting them out of it will take a deliberate effort,” said Paul Hanneman, program director of Urban Ministry Center.

Room in the Inn was created in 1996 as a short-term fix to ease crowding at the city’s shelters. The Urban Ministry stitches the program together by finding colleges, houses of faith and YMCA branches willing to host a few homeless people at night during the winter. Meals are also provided.

This winter, 135 host sites and 5,000 volunteers participated. Together, they filled 17,351 beds over four months, which is a few hundred fewer than last year.

Most of those helped were single men younger than 60.

Hanneman expects the program to return again next year because there are still too many homeless people and some don’t meet guidelines set by the shelters.

Specifically, he cites a requirement that the homeless be from Mecklenburg County, a rule that men’s and women’s shelters added after realizing the city had become a magnet for homeless people from across the country.

Hanneman declined to speculate about what trends might be found in this year’s statistics, other than to say the numbers underscore a need for more affordable housing.

It’s a sentiment echoed by Teresa, 49, who used Room in the Inn as a means of staying with her husband, Darryle, 52. The couple of 25 years declined to give their last name because they say their five grown children don’t know they’re homeless.

They came to Charlotte in November after Darryle was told he had a job waiting for him. That plan quickly fell apart, however, and they ended up living in the woods around Charlotte until learning of Room in the Inn, Teresa said.

“The Urban Ministry treated us like human beings, built us back up and gave us hope,” she said.

“When the program ends, I’m not sure what we’ll do. When you’ve lost everything else in life, the last thing you want to do is separate from each other into different shelters.”

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